SINCE AT LEAST World War 2, the lodestar of US foreign policy has been to steer authoritarian regimes towards norms of free-market democracy on the American model through engagement backed by the United States’ economic and military supremacy.
On basic empirical measures, the policy has been successful. In 1946, there were 21 democracies; today there are more than 80. The number of people living in democracies has risen to more than 4 billion from 385 million over that time, and the biggest authoritarian empire of the second half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union, has collapsed.
US President Donald Trump has thrown out that notion. He has declared that engagement with authoritarian regimes, including China, and perhaps particularly China, to bring them into convergence with the international system does not work for the United States, but diminishes it.
He has thus reverted to the late 19th century-early 20th-century view of international relations as a contest between great-power nation-states in the pursuit of national interests, with hard power being the final arbiter. This is what students of international relations call realism. They contrast its competitive and conflictual nature to the cooperation and shared values emphasised by liberalism.
The America First agenda on which Trump campaigned for office was a clear exposition of realism. The Trump presidency has now enshrined that as policy. Three newly published documents, the National Security Strategy (NSS), the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy (NDS) and the US Trade Representatives annual report on China’s WTO compliance, lay out that sea-change in America’s stance in the world.
As far a China goes, it is now declared a revisionist power and a geostrategic rival along with Russia, Iran and North Korea.
It has been a policy switch in the making since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. The United States then started to act unilaterally to overthrow regimes perceived to be hostile through military intervention or the encouragement of local uprisings in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
That was followed by the challenge that the global financial crisis of 2008 posed to both the Western model of free-market capitalism and the underlying assumption that the US was the nonpareil of economic strength.
The decade since 2008 has opened space for China to demonstrate that it has an alternative economic model — and one that is appealing to many regimes in as much as it came without the accompanying baggage of political liberalism. In place of untrammelled free trade, free capital flows and large-scale cross-border migration, China offered a model that uses markets to allocate some resources but in which the state continues to run the economy (and in China’s case the Party also runs the state).
The United States’s new NSS suggests this model of state-run capitalism has cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars a year of commercial technology conveyed to China as a result of either the openness of the economic relationship on the US side or, as the Trump administration prefers to emphasise, through plain theft.
Trump has declared that that will stop. He repeated his intention in his first State of the Union address last month and has already made it evident by tariffs imposed on solar panels and refrigerators and stricter screening of inbound foreign investment on security grounds.
Trump has said he has held off on more punitive trade actions against China only because he needs its help on pressing North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un to halt his nuclearisation programme.
This year is likely to test Trump’s patience in this regard, especially as this is a Congressional election year in the United States. The political support base that Trump needs to mobilise in the Republican cause, and particularly deindustrialised blue-collar workers, believe China to be the cause of everything ill that has befallen them. He will need to rile them up to vote.
The critical question about the trade measures that Trump takes against China — and it seems a matter of when not if — is their scope; whether they are narrow and targeted, say, anti-dumping duties on specific products such as types of steel and aluminum, as recommended by the US Commerce Department last week, or broad and sweeping, such as high duties on virtually anything shipped from China and a blanket ban on inward Chinese investment to the US.
If it is the former, the damage to the global economy (and US multinationals’ supply chains) would be containable; if it is the latter, the damage could be considerable.
The latter might satisfy Trump’s appetite for ’fair trade’ but at a massive cost to both the US and global economies.
As national security is the other pillar of Trump foreign policy, the proposed build up the US military and the expansion of the US nuclear weapon arsenal is also aimed at China. It has elicited the expected denunciation by Beijing, which accused Washington of reverting to a ‘Cold War mentality’.
It would be a mistake to regard the shift in US policy towards China as being particular to Trump. The latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the house journal of the blue-chip US foreign affairs think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, carries an article entitled the The China Reckoning. The authors, Kurt Campbell, a former senior Obama-era official the State Department, and Ely Ratner, a former deputy National Security Advisor to the same administration, and who thus would both have been involved in President Barack Obama’s ‘Asian pivot’, write:
Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted. Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system. And the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected. China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process.
This shift of position is also endorsed increasingly by US business, which has hitherto has been a strong advocate of engagement to open China’s vast and growing market to foreign trade and investment.
One of the intangible dangers in the new policy is the possibilities of missteps and missignalling resulting from a weakening of working relationships between officials at all levels. Many agency-to-agency channels built up over the past decades are on hiatus, and relatively few US officials are visiting China (or anywhere else). Of the high-level government-to-government economic dialogues only the military-to-military one appears still to be open, mostly on account of the need for channels on North Korea.
More broadly, the new policy will also likely reverse the long-standing practice by the United States of making unlimited provision of visas to Chinese journalists, researchers and students to visit, work and study in the United States while China strictly regulates the flow of their American counterparts in the opposite direction.
FBI director Christopher Wray told a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last week that Chinese students could be a threat since they could be gathering intelligence for China while studying in the United States.
A cutback in the number of foreign graduate students studying or researching in science and technology disciplines is under consideration by the White House as the FBI now considers them an intelligence risk. Wray told the Senate committee:
One of the things we’re trying to do is to view the Chinese threat as not just a whole of government threat, but a whole-of-society threat, on their end. And I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us. It’s not just the Intelligence Community, but it’s raising awareness within our academic sector, within our private sector, as part of defense.
Wray also said that his agency was monitoring ‘warily’ the Confucius Institutes. The risk to the bilateral relationship is that such investigations stoke xenophobia public sentiment against Chinese activities in the United States.
Beijing’s soft power campaigns to influence politics and civil society abroad are also likely to fall under greater US suspicion, especially in light of the Mueller investigation into Russian attempts to interfere with US elections.
For its part, Beijing no longer describes its policy objectives in terms of convergence with international norms. Instead, it emphasises the differences brought by doing everything ‘with Chinese characteristics’. It has been building an alternative architecture, such as new multilateral mechanisms like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, even as it continues to seek more influence in existing institutions such as the IMF, WTO and United Nations.
Beijing has been taking a more aggressive foreign-policy posture since 2008 when it believed it saw a United States entering into a period of accelerating relative decline which created an opportunity for it to act more assertively on the global stage. This posture has intensified since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013. In particular, it has become more transparent about its desire to displace the United States as the preponderant regional power.
Two examples that are cases in point: island building and increasing military deployment in the South China Sea to reinforce China’s claims over the waters and resources off its eastern coasts; and its disruption of trade and tourism with South Korea following Seoul’s decision to permit deployment of the US THAAD missile defence system.
That goes hand in hand with the modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army, and particularly the PLA-Navy, which, eventually, will challenge US naval control of the Western Pacific.
There is a certain irony in two powers pursuing their national interest using not dissimilar mercantilist and military-minded means. China and the United States are following a similar model, though perhaps in not the way round that Washington had for so long imagined.